Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Blowing my own trumpet Fiction Short Stories Theatre

Doctor Spotlight

I don’t know exactly where I first heard the term ‘Doctor Spotlight’ to describe the way that being in the spotlight can momentarily conceal, for example, the terrible hangover or malaise you might be experiencing.

In the early nineties I was knocked off my bicycle one morning cycling down Chiswick High Road, and sustained quite a nasty injury to my hand. I stood in shock and dripping blood. I wandered over to a policeman who said, ‘you’ll live’. He was right.

After being stitched up in Charing Cross Hospital, I made off to my evening engagement. I was doing a poetry reading at the Commonwealth Institute in support of a mental health charity. The star was Spike Milligan who had generously asked for some local poets to be involved in the reading. Of these was a young Mario Petrucci (who second to the great Spike rather stole the show), Rosemary Norman, and I was one of two or three other poets Rosemary had called on.

I arrived early, and made straight for the bar to add booze to the shock, adrenaline and anaesthetic cocktail I was running on. The show opened with Rosemary, Mario and the other poets reading before Spike Milligan. He asked not to be last, so someone was needed someone to finish off. Weirdly, this was me. Sat behind the curtain, in the order of reading, I wound up next to Spike for a couple of hours. He was lovely, but distracted and clearly did not want to talk much.

As the audience, in the hundreds, filed in the PA began playing an interview the great comedian had given the BBC about his depression. After five minutes of this, he leant over to me and asked who it was speaking. I said, ‘It’s you Spike,’ which seemed to surprise him.

Every now and then he tried to escape. He sprang up and wandered distractedly into Kensington High Road, followed by a panicking stage manager, who would shepherd him back.

As the evening wore on, I was left with Spike alone. To me he seemed too distracted and ill to even walk to centre stage, and absolutely not able to perform. Perhaps it was just nerves, I thought, but I was seriously worried about him. But as his name was introduced, he got up, straightened out and strode onstage. Suddenly he was the wonderful entertainer and comedy genius the audience had come to see. He delivered a dazzling performance. For me watching that instantaneous transformation was unforgettable.

Anyhow… This is a roundabout way of saying I have a short story on the Horla website, called Doctor Spotlight, which draws on my experience of seeing the magic the spotlight can do. Hope you like it!

I really have to thank again here, the wonderful short fiction writer Matthew G. Rees, who edits Horla, but also was responsible for kick starting my return to writing short stories.

READ Doctor Spotlight by Peter Kenny here.

Categories
Autobiographical Fiction Horror Short Stories

Powerful work from Clare Best and Matthew G. Rees

Here are a two things I have read lately, that I would highly recommend.

51573H-S9ILClare Best The Missing List 

I’ve met Clare several times, but bought this book without realising that its subject matter was in fact a memoir about child abuse, published in 2018. I discovered it to be a beautiful patchwork of impressions, of childhood memories, of telling descriptions of home movies, and a deeply human but unsentimental record of an abusive father’s protracted death.

Clare Best quietly tells us how she dealt with her father’s expectation that she should write down his memoirs, all without him ever acknowledging the appalling abuse he had foisted on her.

I was tremendously moved by The Missing List, and by imagining the cold courage it must have taken Clare to write it. It is a careful memoir, by this I mean it is aware of its readers as well as dwelling on how caring for others is full of complexity and nuance.  For anyone who is compelled to make sense of their own past, this book’s quietly understated wisdom is very welcome. 

The Missing List is published by Linen Press.

Matthew G Rees The Snow Leopard of Moscow

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As dippers into this blog may recall, I have been immersed in short stories in the horror and weird fiction genre for a while now.  One contemporary writer who I find genuinely interesting is Matthew G Rees, and I wrote about his excellent collection Keyhole here.

A recent story, The Snow Leopard of Moscow, struck me as an instant classic of the literary horror genre. The time he spent in living in Moscow clearly informed the writing of this story, which is pervaded by what, for this reader at least, is a refreshing backdrop for a horror story.

It really has it all — atmosphere, ambiguity, proper characters, and an absence of weary tropes. It was also made me think about the Jungian shadow, and archetypes of tramps and the wounded healer we encounter in dreams. Why not read it here now? 

 

Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Blowing my own trumpet Horror Prose

What You Look For

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895. The Munch Museum.

My short story What You Look For has just been published in Horla.

The story is loosely based on a house I shared as a student in Leamington Spa — with what I hope is a horrific twist. I did once see what I think of as a ghost, which appeared as I describe in this story, although the figure I saw was a woman.

After I finished this story I realise what I may have written was really an allegory for the onset of the panic attacks which started in my early twenties. I experienced debilitating attacks for at least ten years. I had what I thought of as ‘seasons in Hell’, where for stretches of two or three months I might experience as many as five or six attacks in a day.

In my early thirties I finally got help from a systemic therapist in Richmond, Surrey. She had a crumbling spine, and was in agony and spent the sessions lying on her couch. I felt a bit sheepish. She had a real problem. I was just a panicky mess. However, and somewhat miraculously, she fixed me in one session.

‘What makes it stop?’ she asked.

In all the years of attacks on planes, tubes, walking down the road, in the comfort of my own rooms, I had never asked myself this question. I was an expert at what started the terrible plunge into panic, but not on what ended it.

By focusing on what I felt like at the end of a panic attack, I was able to fast forward through the attack, and reach the end unscathed. While I have had the occasional moment of panic since that first consultation, it has never dominated my life again.

I went once more to her, and she told me never to come back again. She died a few months later. To my shame I can’t remember her name, but she gave me the single best piece of advice I was ever given.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Categories
Actors Autobiographical Comedy Theatre

First night tonight at The Marlborough

So the first night of our double bill, We Three Kings, and A Glass of Nothing is tonight at the Marlborough Theatre. Till the evening comes, I feel in limbo. We’ve had long rehearsals over the last few days. Our tech rehearsal was last night. It certainly focuses your mind and clenches the bowels when the stage is lit and dressed, and people are in costume. Tonight sees the first performance of We Three Kings so I am slightly terrified. Being very confident about A Glass of Nothing helps a lot, however.

There are still a few seats available on the door should lovers of dark comedy want to come on impulse. The Marlborough Theatre deets are here.

Being in The Marlborough theatre reminded me of the first time I was there seven years ago for a meeting about something completely different. I snuck onto the stage, and just soaked up the atmosphere of the empty theatre. Unexpectedly, I had a powerful feeling of homecoming.

My first flirtation with writing for theatre was sparked by my friend Timothy Gallagher. It culminated in us staging plays we had written at the Water Rats Theatre in London. Tim was like an infuriatingly talented older brother. But as his death loomed (of AIDs at the age of 37) I shelved my work and focused on helping him stage his own plays. Sometimes he would check out of hospital, get a cab and perform at a venue I’d helped sort out, then go back to the ward. His performances, seen by very few, were electric.

I took me about fifteen years to realise I had been experiencing survivor’s guilt. I didn’t understand at the time, why I was no longer able to face theatre or even poetry readings for about ten years. So I will be thinking of Tim tonight, but in a happy way. And thanking my lucky stars that I worked my way back to theatre again. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of witnessing an entire world being conjured up on stage. It an act of magic. And when people are laughing at a line you’ve written, to be the writer sitting in the audience is a fine thing.

A snap from rehearsals two days ago. James Kuszewski fascinating Beth Symons with a walking stick.

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Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Working Writing

Omega day

The-Omega-Man-1971

Long ago I decided that the last day of the year should be treated with the sort of extreme caution owed to a snake in a sack.

And at this time of year I often think about The Omega Man (1971) a film starring Charlton Heston and based on the enjoyable novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (as was the 2007 Will Smith remake I am Legend). The last man alive is not alone, and has to contend with the undead.

In my case, left alone to brood, the zombies of self-recrimination can lumber out of the dark at this time of year. Give them permission and I can hear them muttering through cracks in the windows about how my objectives for 2015 were not all fulfilled. Not to mention the persistently mystifying absence of a J.K. Rowling level of success.

The only thing to do is to seize my imaginary infrared light rifle and fight all these undead miseries off. The bloodless clumping ‘should-have-dones’ do have a purpose, however. They help me refine my plans for next year, and inspire me to keep trying. But as soon as they get too negative, they have to be culled.

So join me in slaughtering a few zombies. It can be quite therapeutic. Once I thin them out a bit I  can notice my actual achievements. Nothing extraordinary, but a  year perhaps that lays the foundations for a stronger one next year. My blessings are many. My personal life is fantastic, my business is going strong, I continue to find joy in reading literature and the friends I make through it, my own poems are finding new audiences, and I have a play in the offing. Everything is great apart from a few pesky zombies.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. An opportunity for a fresh start that’s literally built into our calendars. I’m looking forward to it already. I hope you are too. Cheers, and I wish you a zombie-free new year.

Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Charity Marketing Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd.

More reflections on Chad

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Village child, near Oum Hadjer, Chad.

A month or so has passed since I returned from what was a particularly intense experience in Chad. I spent a day this week sitting with filmmaker Brad Bell tweaking the edit of some of the shots from our trip so I found myself reliving some of my experiences.

Some impressions take longer than others to surface. I find myself often gratefully thinking about my sheer luck of being born where I was. In Chad the average life expectancy for a man is 50.8 years. I’d likely be dead already if I had been born there. The situation in Chad is dire and this drought will trigger a major hunger crisis across Africa’s Sahel region. People in a community we visited hinted that they were already quietly burying children due to the effects of malnutrition.

Normality is an amazing thing. It is stronger force than we think.  Near the village we were working in during the day, was the town of Oum Hadjer. It seems normal enough. You can buy a cold coke if you can afford it, go to the market and trade and drive around about your business in cars and on scooters just like a normal town. Women from the village went there on donkeys to trade the mats they wove attempting to replace some of their lost income due to the failure of their crops. The fact is they cannot sell their mats at a high enough price to justify the labour. It takes them, for example, five days work to earn enough money for two days food. But they go anyway. What other choice do they have?

Common sense alone says some of these women going to the market were grieving recently-lost children. But people carry on, supported by the comforting fiction of normal life. In times I have been in grief I have noticed how everyday life can seem strangely banal and on the other side of a veil. You wonder why people can’t seem to tell that you are full of misery. It makes me wonder about these women carrying on under the burden of their grief.

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Women returning from visiting Oum Hadjer, Chad

They carry on because there is no alternative, and there were other children to take care of. My friend Catherine Pope reminded me that infant death in the UK in the nineteenth century was far more commonplace than it is now. When many infant deaths are the norm, perhaps there is comfort in knowing your peers are likely to have experienced it too. Like in wartime when people lose their sons, if death becomes commonplace does it lose something of its sting?

Although I realised it was an inappropriate metaphor for the dry Sahel, I kept thinking that if we looked up above the dusty land we would see a tsunami of death and starvation racing towards the village instead of the wide sky and unrelenting sun.

The people we talked to lived in earthen huts but were every bit as intelligent as us, and could see plainly what was happening all around them. One woman told us a little about plans she had to expand into cattle farming and take on more land in a kind of franchise, but now her life is reduced to thinking about where she can get food from for the next meal. This is the grimmest end of ‘normal’ life, when the routines of daily life shrink to abject necessity. As the lack of food hits you, you can’t think properly. Simple things begin to seem impossible. The fiction of normality can’t help anybody then.

Currently, with terrorist attacks, entire populations being forced to move in fear of their lives, we are clinging, ever-more tightly, to rigid ideas of what we consider normal life. What is normal is a collective hallucination. We have to wake up from it sooner or later.

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Girl carrying water on a donkey, Chad

 

Categories
Autobiographical Defenders of Guernsey Guernsey Prose

‘Defenders of Guernsey’ now on kindle

I have revised ‘Defenders of Guernsey’. This second edition, for an 8-to-adult age is now available on Kindle.

As a child my grandparents lived in a road in Guernsey called La rue des Grons. When I lived there as a child, and then stayed with my grandparents on every school holiday the few streetlights went off at 10.30. It was very dark and definitely spooky. Just down the road was a spot that my grandfather, David Marquis, used to zoom past at night. This place was known as Le coin de La Biche (the goat’s corner) and was rumoured to be haunted by the apparition of an enormous nanny goat.

Still the most authoritative book on Guernsey folklore, Folklore of Guernsey by Marie DeGaris devotes a few paragraphs to the giant red-eyed beast and its fearsome sightings, one of which scared a 16 year old girl to death.  I was always happy about La Biche, as it’s not everyone lucky enough to have a star of folklore living a hundred yards or so down the road.

I’ve been working on a children’s character called Skelton Yawngrave for some time. I am now on the sixth draft of a novel which features him. However, when I was invited to the first Guernsey literary festival in 2011 to talk to some children, I thought I would write a longish (13,000 word) short story called Defenders of Guernsey featuring Skelton and La Biche which was published then as a limited edition.

My friend Amanda Milne is developing a board game set on the island, and having read this story borrowed the idea of a terrifying goat. Amanda’s game is now in its a prototype form and being tested by games players. You can read more about the SchilMil game in development here.

Defenders of Guernsey Kindle
Defenders of Guernsey now on kindle. My mother Margaret Hamlin painted La Biche for the cover.

Categories
Autobiographical Music

Remembering Chris Squire

csquire-1Chris Squire, the legendary bass player with Yes had died. I have few heroes, but during the gawky isolation of mid-teens when I listened to Yes obsessively, Chris Squire was my absolute hero.

He was born in Kingsbury, north west London where I happened to live as a teenager. He sang in the church choir of St Andrew’s church, which I passed on the 83 each day going to school. I used to look at that Church wonderingly. Could Kingsbury have spawned such a titan? Yet as a fan, I knew that his choir experience there maybe ten or so years before had taught him how to arrange the complex vocal harmonies Yes often employed.

For me listening to Yes was an otherworldly aural refuge.  I always heard the music through its relationship to Squire’s leviathan bass runs, or his subtle every-note-counts approach. I found his melodic playing sometime swelled full of a majestic pagan power which I found full of meaning. His one solo album, Fish out of Water is a lesser known gem too, full of stunning work.

Despite this reverence I only saw him play live perhaps six or seven times. The first time was in 1975 at QPR stadium, on the Relayer tour when I was fifteen. For me the juxtaposition of ‘cosmic’ Yes with the place that Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis got stuck in studs-first on the field was a bit jarring. An effect doubled when I and the school friend I was with were offered an enormous and aromatic joint by someone sitting next to us. We primly declined. But the event itself was enough to blow my head off.  It was utterly the best thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t wait to see them again, but I had to wait almost two and a half years till late October 1977 and the Going for the One tour. By then veteran of several gigs, as well as forays into gobbing punk, I took my younger brother and we saw what still ranks as the single best concert of any kind I’ve ever seen.

To quantify how much I worshipped Chris Squire, at the time I had a weekend job as a floor housekeeper in the hotel next to the what was then called the Wembley Empire Pool. A day or so before my concert, I was checking a room that was almost completely empty, opened the door of a cupboard and Squire’s unmistakable harlequin-like black and white stage clothes (see pic above) hanging in a wardrobe. Falteringly, I touched the great man’s trousers and left, feeling as if I had touched some potent religious relic.

But what is a hero? For me it someone who pioneers a path into new areas of the imagination. Squire reimagined the function of a rock bass guitar, in a way that changed the way bassists have played since and had brought joy to millions. In carving out new possibilities of music he will always be a hero for that alone, let alone for his excellent songwriting and general likeability.  What a guy.

Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical

Writer’s limbo

fc3159b379efbe73b0e460efd125282c

An Eeyore of a week. I was invited to talk to a writer’s group on Monday, who simply weren’t there when I arrived at the appointed time and place, which was fortunately a pub. The meeting had been cancelled and the email telling me of this went astray into that clown’s pocket in cyberspace stuffed full of messages never received. I nursed a pint of Harveys bitter in a writer’s limbo for a while, rueful and realising that I would have to blog about not having anything to blog about.

Eeyore quote

In other news I have been getting a manuscript to a kindle-ready state. The subject is how the imagination is used in marketing. Each time I look at it, however, I see fresh errors or spot yet another outbreak of gobbledygook. There must be a particular ring in purgatory where writers are forced to revise the same manuscript till the end of time.

And as for poetry… Every poem I’ve worked on this week I have contrived to make worse. Sometimes the Muse is not with you, but instead is looking at its watch and waiting for you to arrive in a pub, or having fun with Christopher Robin.

Off now to chew some thistles.

Categories
Autobiographical Music Real life

A one-way ticket to Palookaville and other random observations

There are all kinds of romantic ideas about how you should behave as an artist. But starving in a garret, which I have done in the past, was not for me. Just recently, pockets full of air after moving house, I had a sequence of six freelance assignments being cancelled one after another – all for legitimate and completely random reasons. Suddenly worries were tugging at my sleeve like a tiresome child, saying ‘how can you be wasting your time on stupid POETRY when you are not earning any MONEY’. Luckily the pesky tyke has given it a rest lately as I have work again. Obviously, thanks to the work I’m now doing, I have no time to finish off the poetry I was able to start in the last few months, but was too twitchy to complete. The Catch 22 of real life.

Having returned from 15 or 20 years scribbling about locusts in the wilderness, I notice that the poetry world is now populated by poets who market themselves excellently through social media. Of course there are people who are giants in cyberspace, but Lilliputians on the page and vice versa. But I love the fact that the internet has opened up avenues to all kinds of writing. But I do get irritated by all the ‘on-message’, relentlessly positive stuff – almost as much as I do with passive aggressive self-righteousness. When the little homunculus of real life is goading me and I’m not feeling positive, I try to steer clear of cyberspace for a few hours. With my marketing hat on, I’d say sincerity is an undervalued commodity when building any kind of a brand, especially a personal one.

I prefer to get hold of a book or a pamphlet and read a collection. I want my attention to focus on what I’m reading, not see it on a screen where there are a bazillion other possibilities trembling with life at the touch of a finger or the click of a mouse. I felt this when I started and edited an e-zine around 2000-2003 called AnotherSun. Although it was quite obscure it featured the work of poets around the world and was visited by quite a few in its time.

A one way ticket to palookaville
A one way ticket to Palookaville

One way to be successful, of course, is to focus on one thing and do it properly. A life lesson I have never been able to learn. If I had focused on AnotherSun for a few more years, for example, perhaps I could have been somebody, instead of sitting writing this at my computer screen like a bum.

But focusing on one thing is just not who I am. I wish I could because I think I would be a lot more successful. Poetry as my first love has cut the deepest, but I can never resist diversification.

The Opera I’m working on with Helen Russell, for example, is going remarkably well. We have settled into a good working arrangement, meeting regularly to discuss at length the section we are about to write, and how it fits with the shape of the whole piece. I write some words and Helen then scores them for singers and an orchestra. Naturally my bit is a good deal faster than Helen’s, but we already have nearly half an hour of music fully scored with words since February. I like writing these words as you can introduce as much fighting, sex, and stabby stuff as you like. After all, they lap it up in opera I’m told. More news of this when it happens.